Histories against Oblivion: Reading Philosopher Dmitri Nikulin’s The Concept of History

Is history just a list with a story?

A fragment of Atlantis by Hellanicus

This question underlies New School for Social Research Philosophy Professor Dmitri Nikulin’s latest book, The Concept of History (Bloomsbury). Nikulin, who will serve as Chair of the Department in 2017-18, asks what we even mean when we use the word history, returning to the discipline’s origins in Ancient Greece. He suggests that to get the clearest picture of what history meant to the ancients, we should push past even Herodotus, typically considered “the father of history.” Instead, we should look to Hecataeus and Hellanicus. The surviving 400 fragments of their work provide a key insight that has less to do with the truth of history than with the way our concept of history has evolved.

To get away from the common modern conception of history as universal and unilinear, Nikulin examines how these earliest historians conceived of their craft. “When I looked at the way in which people were narrating history at that time,” he said, “I started to realize that they looked at history very differently because they didn’t yet have the idea of a final destination for humankind.”

Without this clear destination in mind, history looks like an amalgam of genealogies and geographies; and instead of a single and all-encompassing version of history, we find thinkers narrating diverse simultaneous histories. They are the parallel stories of different peoples populating different places, told from multiple perspectives. Each of these perspectives is embodied by any single person: we all inhabit different streams of overlapping histories (individual, professional, familial, etc.).

“I take it that we inhabit multiple histories, not just one,” Nikulin said, describing one conclusion to take from this perspective. The absence of an overarching narrative among the early Greek historians challenges two touchstones of modern historical thought: the idea of an origin and that of a final end. It underscores the fact that these multiplicities only come together in a single overarching plot—history as a unified narrative—much later.

This perspective required Nikulin to come up with an alternative reading of how the concept history came into being.

In his view, history has always been partly a project of keeping records of details and minutiae like names, events, things, battles, and places. “By doing so, we bring in some order, [and] arrange details in many different ways,” Nikulin said. He emphasized the decision to avoid using the word facts, instead opting for the word details. In this, Nikulin is acknowledging that facts often come laden with narrative. For Nikulin, “The fabula of history,” that is, the story and the narrative that the list tells, “really refers to the narrated plot of what happened, which ties all these details together.” In other words, the combination of details and fabula becomes the real stuff of history.

Though Nikulin insists that the arrangements of any set of details and fabulae remain multiple, this combination of two ingredients—details and the narrative that stitches them together—produces the more familiar picture of history, which intends in part to preserve something like living memories. Such memories are crucial for what it means to be human. “I take it that our historical being consists in our having a place in a history […] in inhabiting a history. And we do that by being included in a narrative.” Like Hannah Arendt, Nikulin argues that a purpose of history is to save us from “the futility of oblivion.”

In the ancient genre of catalogue poetry, for example, we often see extraordinary efforts to preserve meticulously detailed lists and accounts of people and events. These efforts arise from the notion that the practice of history constitutes a preservationist act. According to

Hecataeus of Miletus Map

Nikulin, this idea pervades ancient histories. “You can find it all over the place from the Bible to Hecataeus to Hesiod,” he said, “It’s all about the genealogies of humans and of the gods.” Genealogies give both an order to history and a place to humans, who are either part of the history or involved in its transmission and significance. “If you want to save a people from the futility of oblivion,” he explained, “genealogy is important.”

At the same time, this conception of the purpose of genealogy and its relationship to the historical gives Nikulin space to think about the relationship of history to poetry in the ancient world. “We moderns have a very Romantic understanding of the figure of the poet,” he said, referring to the intellectual movement spanning the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, “according to which the poet is essentially a maniac […] He is inebriated, enthusiastic, and he empties himself in order to let something else, perhaps divinity, speak through him.” But when thinking more carefully about the figure of a poet like Homer, Nikulin argued, “[the poet] is not a maniac.” Rather, he carries out the sober task of preservation and transmission of knowledge. In this sense, Nikulin suggested, “History is probably the first prosaic genre,” which is to say, history was the first non-poetic genre.

This wedding between narrative and genealogy, argues Nikulin, marks a decisive moment in the evolution of history. History begins to look more familiar precisely when the catalogue or list joins with a fabula or narrative. These narratives are malleable, changing over the course of generations, and opening history itself to constant reinterpretation—even as history remains somewhat fixed by the events that the narratives build into a plot. In The Concept of History, Nikulin charts a judicious middle ground between seeing history as a closed, unified and unidirectional march, and seeing it as a jumble of infinitely competing narratives.

How might this influence the practice of history and our understanding of its relationship to other fields?

Nikulin points out that others have suggested that historians can only use the literary genres (comedy, tragedy, detailed lists, etc.) available in their own moment to interpret events. But he emphasizes the inventive possibilities of historical narrative. “We can use certain conventions, but we can invent many other interesting ways of reading histories,” he said. With recent critical understandings of gender, for instance, we might be able to construct novel historical narratives that might have been difficult to conceive up to now. This has significant implications for our understanding of politics as well, given the intimate inscription of the historical. Given the understanding of history as multiple and revisable, politics becomes equally subject to such reconsiderations.

In The Concept of History, Nikulin does not limit his claims to ancient histories, but there is significant value in learning what historians intended before more familiar contemporary conceptions of historical work hardened into tradition. Nikulin’s book opens up conversation about what history can aspire to be, precisely by learning about how the discipline came to be constituted as being invented.

 

 

Invisibility: The Heart of (Social) Science, The Hiding Hand

Debates about invisibility appear in the social sciences, literature, physics, and popular culture. Whether referring to camouflage, magical rings in the possession of hobbits, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, subatomic particles, or the social invisibility of marginalized groups, questions about the unseen drive research.

The latest issue of Social Research, edited at The New School’s Center for Public Scholarship and published through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University Press, engages in a multi-disciplinary examination of what makes the concept of invisibility so enduringly compelling. To complement the issue, CPS hosted a two-day conference at The New School as part of the Nth Degree Series. The event invited issue contributors to join scholars, writers, and even an illusionist, to think together about invisibility.

On the conference’s opening night, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene and writer Marina Warner hosted a keynote conversation. Prior to their event, The New School’s Stephanie Leone had a chance to talk with Greene, who suggested that getting comfortable with the concept invisibility is essential for scientists. “Invisibility is in many ways at the heart of what science is about,” he said. “We try to look out into the world and illuminate the things that you can’t see with the naked eye.” Whether investigating the composition of matter or the forces that hold together the universe, science has the tricky task of staring at the invisible and trying to give an account for the unseen.

The issue of Social Research makes a compelling case that the invisible similarly lays at the heart of questions in the social sciences and humanities. It does so by showcasing richly diverse research and disciplinary perspectives on the invisible. In its opening essay, Arien Mack—the Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research and editor of Social Research—introduces the concept of “perceptual invisibility,” which arises as an effect of cognitive processes. “Perceptual invisibility entails a failure to see what is before our open eyes,” Mack writes, “and is a partner to seeing what is not there or seeing more than is actually there to be seen.”

Echoing the Past: NSSR PhD Student Elisa Monti Searches for Indices of Trauma in Voice

The cliché goes: our eyes are windows to our soul. At The New School for Social Research, new work by experimental psychology doctoral student Elisa Monti explores whether our voice might contain echoes of our past.

Having started out as a performer and student of musical theatre, Monti developed an interest in variations that she noticed in the singing voices of her peers. Detecting subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in their voice when performing in varied social contexts, she grew curious about the potential psychological causes of what seemed to be involuntary changes. She began charting a distinctive research agenda that integrates, in a novel way, typically disparate strands of psychological research. Her work informs her undergraduate teaching at The New School’s Eugene Lang College, as well as a documentary project on the relationship between trauma and voice.

Monti was drawn to the New School’s Social Psychology lab, where she pursues research under the supervision of Professor Emanuele Castano. To approach questions about voice, Monti explains, she first studied attachment dynamics. Within the field of psychology, theories of attachment provide accounts for how the behavioral patterns that structure childhood relationships and connections continue to affect individuals as they mature into adulthood. Monti drew a parallel between variations in voice and the social dynamics of past experiences, particularly those related to childhood. Her ambition was to measure whether such experiences could shape the kinds of vocal variations that she had previously recognized.

The experiments produced surprising results. When it comes to vocal variations, Monti’s work suggests that the present circumstances in which a singer performs are shot through with memories from the singer’s past.

Monti’s research became oriented toward the question of whether past traumas make their presence felt, not just psychologically, but also physically. To pursue this question, Monti also became affiliated with a the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab in the NSSR Psychology Department, led by Assistant Professor Wendy D’Andrea. From this new perspective, guided by research on the ways that psychological trauma can indeed manifest physically, Monti began to explore the manifold ways our voices are altered, often in barely noticeable ways, by unconscious dynamics.

In addition to writing a traditional peer-reviewed academic paper, Monti also sought new mediums to pursue and publicize her research. It was this need that to led her to produce You’ll Say Nothing, a documentary film that explores the entanglements of trauma and voice in an audiovisual format.

The documentary features short vignettes in which patients and clinicians describe cases of people losing control over their voice in different ways after experiencing trauma. In the beginning of the film, Professor D’Andrea reminds viewers that, “the voice expresses things we don’t even mean to express.” Monti’s documentary proceeds to unpack into this assertion, demonstrating that the content of what is expressed can emerge from the long-term, unexpected effects of trauma.

As Brian Gill, an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Indiana explains in the film, “Mind and voice are very connected; it’s impossible to deny that reality.” As a teacher of voice, Gill suggests that he has to be aware that, “on some level, as I’m focused on the technical needs of a student […] I have to see where they’re locked up. Why they are unable to unlock their voice, so to speak. In that setting, it’s inevitable that you’re going to uncover some issues that they’ve had in their life. Some more minor than others, and others incredibly devastating.” Beyond the specific setting of music instruction, clinicians in the field argue that it may be possible to detect traces of previous traumas not only in singing voices, but also in regular speech.

Monti hopes You’ll Say Nothing will generate enough interest to motivate the creation of a second documentary on the same subject. “If somebody sees a project that can reach them like this and thinks ’you know what, I’m actually really interested in this subject,’ then it will be easier to pull them into the actual research.” In the end, Monti’s goal is to reach both a scientific audience and a more general viewership, bringing attention to the connections between trauma and voice. She aims to create enough interest to make it clear that further research into this issue will provide vital insight into our voices and ourselves.

 

Operating on Unfamiliar Terrain: Ann Stoler on Her New Book, Research, and The Institute for Critical Social Inquiry

Ann Laura Stoler wants readers to push beyond established concepts about colonialism and its enduring effects.

In her ninth book, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (Duke), Stoler asks “what sorts of rethinking and reformulations” might allow a better understanding of “colonial presence.” Her ambition is not to overthrow the concepts that underlie knowledge about colonialism. Rather, she uses methodical interventions to “inhabit them differently,” broadening our sense of the complex outcomes of imperial projects.

Stoler’s approach represents the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship that characterizes the New School for Social Research, where she serves as the Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies. It also characterizes her leadership of the New School’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry, which she has called a “labor of love.”

To work at the edges of a disciplinary boundary, or in the borderlands between disciplines, means that a scholar often occupies a liminal space, opening oneself to the possibility of being equally misunderstood by peers in multiple fields. In a recent interview with Itinerario, Stoler explains that such misunderstandings have sometimes determined the reception of her work, especially in the early part of her career.

“When I was in Madison,” Stoler says, “a stolid World Bank consultant on the faculty criticized my work for being ‘political’ and not ‘scholarly’ and with avuncular largesse counseled me to cease the former if I wanted tenure.” But Stoler persisted in her provocative line of research, drawing on Foucault and Marx, and navigating between anthropology, history, and philosophy. Her work is now recognized precisely for its deft integration of multiple disciplinary perspectives, and has a well-established home at the New School for Social Research.

The New School attracted Stoler because it valued her cross-disciplinary approach to scholarship. Prior to her arrival, Stoler says that she “imagined a philosophically inflected critical scholarship with a different bite and edge.” She adds that her work “has been nourished by being in New York [her birthplace] and by the environment that the New School faculty and its eclectic graduate student body offer.”

Ultimately, the convergence of Stoler’s passion for critically grounded, non-traditional research and the New School’s commitment to its history of critical scholarship resulted in the creation of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry.

Stoler explains:

“I wanted to create a space where it was possible to learn about what you felt you should already have known- whether that be the work of Fanon, Hegel or Marx and to learn about how to think those thinkers today with ‘masters’ who had taught and studied those thinkers for years and then to come together with fellows from all over the world to think those thinkers differently again.”

Today, Stoler’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry offers weeklong immersive experiences for young and seasoned scholars from around the world, and is comprised of graduate school-style master classes each morning and project workshops in the afternoon. Every institute puts advanced graduate students and junior and senior scholars into an intensive intellectual environment in which appreciation of the politics of knowledge is key as they cultivate and refine their critical skills, and share work with their peers.

Applications for the 2017 Summer Seminars are open through December 15. International Scholars, especially those based in the Global South, are encouraged to apply. Scholarships and travel grants are available. This summer’s featured lecturers will be Anthony Appiah, David Harvey and Michael Taussig. In previous years the ICSI lecturers included Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Talal Asad, Patricia Williams and the New School’s Simon Critchley and Jay Bernstein.

The New School’s focus on heterodox perspectives, along with its emphasis on the connection between theory and contemporary political and social issues, continues to attract faculty and students eager for the opportunity to work across disciplinary boundaries, for being unsettled, and for mixing and matching lines of intellectual influence.

When reflecting on the development of her own career, Stoler notes, “‘influence’ is a word that Foucault reminds us hides and I would argue steals meaning from the practices that make it up. I’d say that those places where I hadn’t expected to go were provocations that compelled me to do something in a way I might not have otherwise, caught me productively off precarious balance, and exposed me to the vulnerabilities of operating on unfamiliar terrain.”

For the rest of Ann Stoler’s interview, read the upcoming issue of the Leiden-based journal Itinerario.

Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times is available now. In her endorsement of the book, Patricia J. Williams writes: “Duress is an extraordinary excavation of colonialism’s recurrent conceptualizations of massive zones of ecological ruination, human vulnerability, and affective disregard. Ann Laura Stoler is laser-like in the forensics of those imperial pursuits—global and across centuries—whose accumulating sedimentations have all but naturalized unremitting states of emergency, eternal war, and perpetual exceptions to the rule of law. This book’s comprehensive clarity about the histories of our present is a gift of vision that, if heeded, might point the distance toward reckoning and repair.”

Ann Laura Stoler is Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research. Stoler is the director of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry. She taught at the University of Michigan from 1989-2003 and has been at the New School for Social Research since 2004, where she was the founding chair of its revitalized Anthropology Department. She has worked for some thirty years on the politics of knowledge, colonial governance, racial epistemologies, the sexual politics of empire, and ethnography of the archives. She has been a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études, the École Normale Supérieure and Paris 8, Cornell University’s School of Criticism and Theory, Birzeit University in Ramallah,  the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, Irvine’s School of Arts and Literature, and the Bard Prison Initiative. She is the recipient of NEH, Guggenheim, NSF, SSRC, and Fulbright awards, among others. Recent interviews with her are available at Savage MindsLe Monde, and Public Culture, as well as Pacifica Radio and here.

For more details about Ann Stoler’s publications, see a small selection from the NSSR Bookshelf.